The Milk Carton Kids: Just Plain Folk

Music Features The Milk Carton Kids
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Joey Ryan hesitates when asked about the super-charged applause he and Kenneth Pattengale—together they’re The Milk Carton Kids—received after performing at high-profile events including the January tribute to Emmylou Harris in Washington, D.C., and the more recent Americana Music Awards Nominations in Nashville.

“I do have a couple of things to say about those,” he says. “I don’t know why anybody thinks anything we have to say is funny. And the other thing is that I take The Smothers Brothers’ reference [made by many fans] is a fond one but…I intentionally have never seen a minute of that show… It does feel odd to accept the compliments and congratulations, though, because it’s really all just starting.”

That may well be true. The Kids formed in 2011, but the duo has traveled a long way in a very short time without a band, multimedia or even funky lighting.

“We always tell them to remove the [colored] gels and just have white light,” Ryan says. “That makes us feel bad, because [the lighting technicians] want to express their artistry too.”

Clearly, though, even such minor scenography would diminish from the Milk Carton Kids’ musical identity that advances that of the Everly Brothers, the Smothers Brothers or Simon & Garfunkel (even if it is done unknowingly).

The duo’s back-to-basics style is such a part of their lives that they wrote and recorded the majority of their just-released album Monterey while on tour, commandeering small theaters and other venues for the sessions. When they came off the road, they settled into a small Nashville church to finish recording the project.

The resultant 11 tracks on the album are clear odes to the tumbles and triumphs in life. Yes, the songs are simply, as the old saying goes, three chords and the truth. And that’s what makes it exquisite.

The lush guitar opening on “Asheville Skies” is just a prelude to the gorgeous harmonies that tell the story of dreams that never materialized, while “Secrets of the Stars” is a lush love song to life that begins with the achingly fervent lyric: “The only time I ever heard the voice of God was in the silence of the night in the arms of the one I love.”

Other stand out tracks include “Shooting Shadows,” a reflection on aging and losses, while one of the most up-tempo tracks on the album “The City of Our Lady,” is an uplifting “everywhere we go we are the child of where we came.”

“I am proud of the overall perspective that comes through on the work as a whole. There are so many different stories,” Ryan says. “A lot of the material has been perceived as kind of down and some explicitly are heard as lament, as times passed and things lost…But it’s important to us always to be somewhat consistent and show forward looking hope…

“That is how we feel, we can look around us and see everything wrong with world and ourselves but we are at the age where we have the perspective and can still feel entire world ahead of us. We are at a particular point where we haven’t lost our naïve sense of youthful immortality but at the same time we are gaining the beginning of wisdom.”

That seems especially important for the Grammy-nominated duo, which won the highly coveted 2013 Americana Music Festival Award for Emerging Artist of the Year.

The Milk Carton Kids have long been called “the next big thing” in music, an honorific that seemingly makes Ryan somewhat uncomfortable.

“I think luckily what are the expectations for an acoustic folk duo? I mean, how high can they be?” he says, talking about how audiences have moved from hero-worshipping such artists as the ‘60s folk phenomenon Donovan to expecting concert extravaganzas. “But to address the question seriously, we have been very intent on what we are doing, which is working within the limited framework of our instrumentation and talents—just the guitars and mics and our vocals. That has helped us stay on track, even as things around us evolve.”

Although he’s quick to note that suggested changes have been relatively minor—like a kick drum in front of one or both members—the duo have opted to avoid them as they avoid the gels over lights.

“What we do see and will concentrate on is a lot of need for growth in our writing and our performances,” he says. “Again, we are just beginning.”